The Fall | 25/01/18

Image: Mark E Smith Domino


Crows Feet Are Ingrained On My Face

A tribute to Mark E. Smith by Richard King.

In 2010, following the success of the Von Südenfed record, it was agreed that Domino would release the next album by The Fall. I was charged with writing the biography for the release and was given a number to ring in order to speak with Mark E. Smith. Elena Poulou answered the phone and in the background I could hear a raucous noise I assumed to be the band rehearsing. Although this was unlikely as I was calling Mark and Elena at their home.

'Sorry,' Elena said as the noise increased in volume and now included laughter and animated shouting 'could you call tomorrow same time, it's not convenient'.

When I telephoned the next day Elena answered once again, apologised for the day before as Mark came briskly to the phone.

'Alright, yeah' he said  'we're going to get this record out. What’s taking so long?' Mark E Smith then chuckled and for the next ten minutes he spoke with the combination of politeness, indignation and occasional contrariness on which his reputation rested.

I asked him about the new album's opening track 'Bury Parts 1 & 3', 'I fucking hate the place' he said, as well as the album's closing number 'Weather Report 2' a song that shared an emotional tenderness and tone with 'Bill Is Dead' from the 1992 album Extricate.

'Well,’ he continued 'I really like the band at the moment and think it’s the best we've sounded. I mean I would say that but I mean it.'

The defining characteristic of 'Weather Report 2' and 'Bill Is Dead' is the rarely heard vulnerability in Smith's voice and a lyric in which he talks openly and dramatically about his life. There was a pause that indicated this brief moment of sentimentality was sufficient and that our conversation had now ended.

Your Future Our Clutter was well received and continued the momentum The Fall had regained at the turn of the century, when a run of strong releases, the renewed interest in Post Punk and their discovery by a new generation led to one of their most energetic and popular periods.

No one would ever doubt Smith's work ethic but by the late 1990s his well-documented behavioural problems, together with the sense of The Fall operating on a treadmill of contractual obligations and cash in hand reissues had curdled his doggedness. Some of the records from this period such as Levitate and The Marshall Suite are eerie in a way few other Fall records are eerie. On them Smith sounds under resourced, both financially and emotionally, to resist his investiture as an Indie National Treasure. A situation he clearly finds intolerable. The productivity rate of the prole art threat had by now threatened the band’s future. At the concert I attended at Dingwalls in '98 the band played as a trio of Smith, Julia Nagle and a drummer, Kate Themen. For ten minutes towards the end the choreographer Michael Clarke joined them on bass. Many present found the performance riveting, but I suspect most assumed they had witnessed the band's final London concert.

Parts of their subsequent survival lie in the regard and mystique with which The Fall were held outside the UK. In the record shop I worked in almost twenty-five years ago, I came close to convincing a young Will Oldham to part with a portion of his fee from the previous night's concert for a mint copy of Fall In A Hole. On a visit to the Domino office Bill Callahan once enquired about the merits of 1997's Levitate, a record very few people I knew had bothered listening to. And despite his regular criticism of the band, Pavement covered The Classical from Hex Enduction Hour for a Peel Session that year. Its inclusion moved the DJ to send the band a personal note of thanks.

It's not difficult to imagine how exotic the early Fall must have seemed to young people in America with enquiring minds. On the 1981 live album A Part Of America Therein, the band are introduced as being from the 'From the riot torn streets of Manchester, England'. The Fall's music of that era is as evocative of Britain in the early 1980s as any World In Action documentary. The lyrics to 'Winter' feature a 'cleaning lady', 'alcoholics dry out house', and a 'feminist Austin maxi with anti nuclear sticker'. The accompanying music is played by a band with a listlessness that, like much of the country at the time, is almost pathological.

The performance the band gave on the Peel session version of 'Winter' is particularly dramatic. On many of these recordings Smith's voice is often louder in the mix and the BBC studio arrangements clearly suited the band. Perhaps Smith was also aware how symbiotic the relationship between The Fall, the radio session and the DJ had become. These were sessions listened to by people who resisted the idea of Smith as an avuncular curmudgeon. They saw him more as an avant-garde Johnny Cash: a man in a black leather jacket and the same neat haircut who was incapable of stopping and whose eyes had become ingrained with crow's feet at an early age. Someone who lived by their wits and was well aware they were sharper and more resilient than those of his contemporaries.  

Three years ago I invited Smith to do a Q&A at the stage at Green Man Festival I was then curating. He and the band arrived backstage in their usual manner, in a vehicle branded in the livery of Salford Van Hire. For two hours they sat in the sunshine decompressing from the journey down, laughing and drinking but not to excess, merely enjoying the moment.

 When it was time for Smith to take the stage I led him to the side entrance. His right arm shot out with an involuntarily spasm.

'Fucking hell' he whispered 'I didn't know it was this big, can you get us a beer?' I duly passed him a can that he downed in one, before strutted on to the stage with a theatrical sniff and his usual swagger. He received an ovation from the nine hundred people gathered there to see him and for a brief moment a smile cracked across his face. The interview was sponsored by the music magazine Mojo and consisted of questions sent in from its readers. For the next 50 minutes he held forth on matters that provoked his ire: music magazines, Mojo in particular, festivals, Stewart Lee and matters he found inspiring, including Ultramagnetic MCs and Methodism.

Fantastic Life.